Abdellah Karroum, director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, tells Selections how two related exhibitions reveal the themes, threads and gaps in the museum’s extensive collection
Curated by Abdellah Karroum, director of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, and Laura Barlow, the museum’s Middle East curator, Summary, Part 2, is a fascinating follow-up to the museum’s previous exhibition exploring its 9000-piece strong collection. Including artworks from the 19th century to today, the collection – the most extensive permanent collection of modern and contemporary Arab art in the world – provides insight into defining moments of history and creativity in the region.
Karroum sat down with Selections to explain how Mathaf’s iconic works, arranged into thematic galleries, provide insight into historic and social changes in the Arab world. In their new incarnation, these galleries provide the collection with a clear narrative and thematic thread, as well as revealing the gaps in the collection that need to be filled, helping to guide future acquisitions.
Please tell us about the new project at the Mathaf.
We just finished a complete rehang of the galleries in the museum last week. The collection has a true direction now, a historical narrative, not necessarily seen in a linear way but in a way that looks at countries in Africa and the Middle East that Mathaf works with. We are focusing on artists that have created a new kind of artistic proposal, especially ones that worked in the mid-20th century when they produced works that responded to a new post-independent setting. The idea is to look at the first artists in this context. We say post-independent instead of post-colonial because we are specifically observing the new kind of art they had to build.
So the artists are creating the systems and policies in their own societies. They are also intellectually creating a certain kind of art that is independent from their colonial heritage and positioning their ideas vis-a-vis the post-independence powers. In many countries, we can observe the artist’s choice of including traditions in craft and the local materials in a modern way. The galleries also communicate the multiple modernities that have derived from this phenomenon, as well as highlighting major themes and styles developed in the region in the recent decades.
What is the theme of the first gallery opening the show?
The shared element in the permanent collection’s first gallery is the theme of “Woman In Society,” starting with a life-size sculpture of a female figure holding a jar called On the Banks of the Nile by Mahmoud Mokhtar, which he had made in a small version in 1921. We also have Jawad Saleem, who presents the figure of women in a traditional way – the type of artist that represents the figure as an integrated element of the technical execution. You have Inji Efflatoun, an Egyptian painter who is known for her political portraits. She is an activist that worked a lot with the idea of change in society during the ’50s. You can notice her ideological position in a formal society through the Portrait of a Woman Behind Bars painting exhibited in this gallery.
We have chosen women in society for the first gallery because it matches a moment when the figure of woman was a symbol of freedom. The liberation of the country coincided with the liberation of woman, especially given that, symbolically, nations are referred to as the motherland. And you will see this all through the museum, even when the topic changes from one gallery to the next. In a sense, it is our duty to highlight women artists that have been ostracised from the history of art. It really isn’t, however, about rewriting history as much as it is about reading what already exists. The stories are there. Now it’s about finding the most efficient way of connecting them to universities, museums and other cultural organizations.
We are actively adding more female artists in all of the galleries, not just the first one. In gallery number eight, for instance, we have the Qatari artist Wafa Al Hamad, who works in calligraphy. She wasn’t very well known in her lifetime. She died young but her work is becoming more and more popular as we make it accessible at the Museum. There are a lot of works in possession of her family that we are trying to archive in our collection.
What are the commonalities between gallery one, Women in Society, and gallery two, Portraits of Changing Societies?
Gazbia Sirry, for instance, is exhibited in the first gallery with a piece depicting a portrait of a woman with an unknown title, as well as in the second gallery with a piece entitled An Egyptian Family. The topic of the first gallery filters through very logically to the second one. It focuses on challenging society, which is important, whether through change in political independence or the oil industry. The East/West conflict is very visible in this gallery. It isn’t a quest to offer answers to the big questions in the region rather an observation of symbolisms, documentation, even a criticism. We go from the more specific topic of “women” to a broader world, from gallery one to gallery two, although we are still following a logical thread.
Is it very interesting to see how Wael Shawky is observing the crusades and, for instance, how Sliman Mansour portrays the Palestinian people’s struggle. We have a rather old painting by Abdullah Al-Muharraqi entitled Oil Exploration (1953), representing a group of Arab men working in the oil fields, a social condition that affected. This work produced after twenty years since the discovery of oil in Bahrain witnessed life style, economy and relationship to the territory. The connection to history is strong but there is a strong connection to the evolution of style as well.
The pieces here are extremely figurative and based in realism. However, moving forward through the different galleries, society is also documented through a minimalist or more conceptual style. You will even find certain pieces in each gallery which don’t seem to match the topic, like the Marwan piece in the first “Woman” gallery. But we wanted to emphasize Marwan as a Syrian artist who discusses the notion of exile. When you talk about the figure of woman, you cannot isolate it from anything. One needs to see it as the strongest symbol in various big topics. This is the first time that we create this type of exhibition in which we are proposing to create a historical narrative through the collection, even though we have gaps within it. I think this type of documentation will actually help us fill in the gaps in our local art history, to look for work that could complete the different galleries and make the viewer’s museum experience stronger.
The curatorial style isn’t based on a linear time frame. Was the mixing of works done at different times and in different places, contrary to the traditional ways of the Mathaf, your personal choice?
Yes, it was. We extracted from a collection of over 9000 works. Mathaf’s initial acquisitions were from the private collection of Sheikh Hassan and Qatar Foundation. When I arrived recently we tried to consolidate and fill in the gaps. That’s when we started negotiating the logic of the museum. Summary, Part 1, the exhibition previous to this one was an opening of the box or window onto different landscapes showing the diversity of the collection and its geographies and the importance of modern and contemporary history in the works.
For this exhibition, Summary, Part 2, we tried to enter into this landscape and organise its infrastructure, creating roads and pathways to allow more clarity in the reading. It draws a trajectory from the body of the collection, encouraging interconnectivity.
It is important to look at art histories in the context of Mathaf collection from the local contexts, but also in connection with the tendencies of art at the global scale. For example Saloua Raouda Choucair developed a critical thinking vis-a-via modern art debates internationally in the 1940s and 1950s around abstraction. The artist created abstraction inspired by what she called Arab architecture or historical Andalusian tradition of construction of forms. Fahrelnissa Zeid is another example of women artist who made a major contribution to the global art history, and we need to give her justice in the spheres of museums and scholarship.
The museum also started to bring a lot of artists together and allowed them to produce commissioned works on sight. So it’s definitely an active space where the visitor can explore the collection and discover new art tendencies. For the moment, we feel that it’s important to reveal the idea of diversity. It’s about making the museum a space where we address the issues of today. The works on display talk about the whole collection, an orientation, a reference to a before and after. We offer a museum experience that allows a special kind of entry into each artist’s world and life.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, A Dialogue Between Generations of Arab Women in Art #42, Art Paper.